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Health or survival? The impossible choice facing one Peruvian mining community

Locals want the metallurgical complex in La Oroya, Peru to reopen
Locals want the metallurgical complex in La Oroya, Peru to reopen   -   Copyright  AFP
By Hannah Brown  with AFP

The mining city of La Oroya, in western-central Peru is one of the most polluted places in the world.

From 1922 to 2009, a metal smelting plant was the centre of the city churning out toxic fumes and poisoning the residents.

Since the smelter closed, the local population’s health has improved but the economy and quality of life have depleted.

Now the city is faced with a decision: prioritise their health or their ability to survive?

One of the most polluted places on earth

In 2011, La Oroya was listed as the second-most polluted city on Earth. It fell into fifth place two years later, according to the Blacksmith Institute, an NGO which works on pollution issues.

The city rubbed shoulders on the list with Ukraine's nuclear-sullied Chernobyl and Russia's Dzerzhinsk, the site of Cold War-era factories producing chemical weapons.

According to the International Federation for Human Rights, 97 per cent of La Oroya children between six months and six years of age, and 98 per cent between age seven and 12, had elevated levels of lead in their blood in 2013.

"Those of us who have lived here for a lifetime have been ill with flu and bronchitis, especially respiratory infections," says retired teacher Manuel Enrique Apolinario.

Medical tests showed Manuel’s body contains high levels of lead, arsenic and cadmium - all toxic to humans.

The people vs. polluters

In 2006, La Oroya residents sued the Peruvian government at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights for allowing the smelting company to pollute at will.

At the hearings, residents recounted how they struggled with burning throats and eyes, headaches, and difficulty breathing. Others told of tumours, muscular problems, and infertility which they blamed on pollution from the smelters.

In 2021, the commission found that the state had failed to regulate and oversee the behaviour of the mining company and "compromised its obligation to guarantee human rights."

Why do residents want the smelter to reopen?

The Andean city, situated in a high valley at an altitude of 3,750 metres, is a grey, desolate place. Small houses and shops - many abandoned - cluster around towering black chimneys. They are surrounded by ashen mountain slopes corroded by heavy metals and long devoid of vegetation.

In 2009, the gigantic smelter that was the economic heartbeat of La Oroya went bankrupt, forcing residents to leave in droves and bringing local commerce to its knees.

In October, the new owners of the metallurgical complex announced their plans to reopen the plant. They claim it will operate "with social and environmental responsibility." Many locals welcomed this, hoping it could breathe life back into the economy.

"The large majority of the population is eager and has waited a long time for this to start up again, because it is the source of life, the economic source," says 48-year-old taxi driver Hugo Enrique.

But at what cost?

The foundry was opened in 1922, nationalised in 1974, and later privatised in 1997 when US natural resources firm Doe Run took it over. In June 2009, Doe Run halted work after failing to comply with an environmental protection program and declared itself bankrupt.

Now, despite years of residents accusing Lima and Doe Run of turning a blind eye to the harmful effects, some 1,270 former employees want to reopen the smelter next March - with the vow not to pollute.

"Those of us who fought against pollution have never opposed the company’s existence. Let it reopen with an environmental plan," says Pablo Fabian Martinez, 67, who lives near the site.

"I want it to reopen because, without the company, La Oroya lost its entire economy," added Rosa Vilchez, a 30-year-old businesswoman whose husband left to work in another city after the closure.

Watch the video above to learn more.

Video editor • Joanna Adhem